Dudamel traverses familiar Russian territory, convincing and affectionate, but rarely with new insight.
MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition; A Night on Bald Mountain; TCHAIKOVSKY: Waltz from Swan Lake, Op. 20 – Vienna Philharmonic Orch./ Gustavo Dudamel – DGG 479 6297, 50:51 (12/2/16) [Distr. by Universal] ***:
Whenever a new recording emerges of an old chestnut, my hackles rise, assuming the performance to be guilty until it proves itself innocent. So be it. Gustavo Dudamel – a protégé of another literalist conductor, Claudio Abbado – has taken on the Mussorgsky 1874 Pictures as orchestrated by Maurice Ravel (rec. April 2016) partially to give exposure to the “Superar” Project, which provides free music lessons for children from Vienna’s Tenth District. Pictures of the children grace the album insert cover and booklet. While I cannot deny the instrumental versatility of the Vienna Philharmonic players and the pungent acoustical resonance captured by Recording Engineer Rene Moeller and Teldex Studio, Berlin, I am not sufficiently overwhelmed to recommend this performance over my perennial favorites Bernstein, Reiner, and Toscanini.
Certainly the individual colors in this performance, as in the Vienna Philharmonic’s excellent bassoon solos, captivate my ear. The bass fiddles in Bydlo have rarely resonated so deeply. The Vienna brass (and battery) have been waiting to bask in their glorious sound in the Catacombs, Baba Yaga, and The Great Gate of Kiev. Many auditors, however, will inevitably compare this performance to that of Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic, remarking on their similarities. Dudamel assumes that louder and more intense guarantees musical excellence; granted, the opportunities for subtlety in this music appear only sporadically. But for me the music follows a course well trod; and had Koussevitzky had our modern sonic resources, I feel sure he would have outdone Mr. Dudamel.
The symphonic poem A Night on Bare Mountain (1867; rev. 1886) had been meant by Mussorgsky – who called the piece “a wicked prank” – to have rivaled Liszt in his Totentanz. This evocation of “dark Russian gods” had to be “improved” by such editors as Rimsky-Korsakov and Leopold Stokowski. As a display piece, the work provides an impressive tour de force, an invocation of St. John’s Eve in dazzling bravura for strings, winds, and brass. Mussorgsky also meant Chernobog to lord over Dionysiac, priapic fertility rites that the Disney illustrators of the 1940 Fantasia carefully avoided. A sweeping performance by Dudamel elicits energy and vast colors from the VPO, and the morning dispersal of the evil spirits enjoys marvelous ensemble from flute, strings, and harp.
The lilting Waltz from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake has already had one impeccable performance on records in my mind, that of Ferenc Fricsay. Dudamel, of course, accords the music the full Technicolor treatment, from strings to brushed and crashing cymbals. Frankly, were the whole disc devoted to extended Swan Lake excerpts, we might have had a superior musical experience. The resonance of the orchestra, its especially timbred tympani, add a luster that simply doesn’t exist elsewhere. The flutter-tongued flutes and graduated string players exert just that element of subtlety I found lacking in Mussorgsky. Dudamel’s broad approach, while perhaps contrived in a way that Fricsay achieved naturally, still convinces me that this moment from ballet shimmers in epic splendor.